A Ford Cortina with a Big Secret

Story and photos by John Webber

Why would a longtime collector and accomplished vintage racer with a shop full of rare and wonderful Porsches build a quirky British outlier into a weapons-grade screamer?

Because he had a vision, that’s why.

As Jerry Peters tells it, a humble, early Lotus Cortina GT helped ignite his lifetime passion for cars. In the mid-’60s, when he was a delivery boy in Jacksonville, Florida, making his rounds along a wicked section of road the locals called Dead Man’s Curve, he spotted a pair of fast-approaching cars. As they wailed by, he was astonished to see a tiny, boxy sedan–he had no clue what it was–pull a nifty pass on an unsuspecting, and no doubt humbled, ’64 Pontiac GTO, then considered king of the streets.

Jerry tracked down the little flyer at a local hangout, where he learned that it was a Lotus Cortina built in the U.K. and powered, to his amazement, by a four-cylinder engine. His enlightenment occurred around the time the potent Shelby-created Sunbeam Tiger was surprising a lot of would-be racers, so naturally he thought, “This car ought to have a Ford 260 or 289 V8 under the hood–sort of a Cortina Tiger.” On that moment, Jerry vowed that he would someday own a Cortina, and he would, indeed, stuff a V8 in it.

In those days, Jerry was driving a VW delivery truck for Brumos, the famed Porsche dealer. Whenever the van broke down, he was allowed to drive his boss’s Porsche 356 Super 90. After that, Jerry says, “I was always looking for ways to disable that truck.”

As the years passed, his interest in small, agile sedans like the Lotus Cortina (he was a Jim Clark fan), Datsun 510 and BMW 2002 grew because he liked their “sleeper” looks. “My interest in cars helped me focus,” Jerry says. “I loved cars, but I knew that took money. I wasn’t college material, so I knew I’d have to work extra hard to get them.”

Decades later, his efforts paid off with business successes, and he was able to indulge his passion. Even as he bought and traded Porsches and other exotics, he stayed on the lookout for a Cortina.

He first bought a Mark II, but soon realized that the body style just wouldn’t do. “It had no fins and no ‘ban the bomb’ taillights,” Jerry says. So he located and began chasing a rust-free, 23,000-mile 1965 Cortina from Canada. He kept tabs on it for several years as it passed between various owners. Finally, he was able to acquire it through a trade deal that involved a Bentley once owned by Vanna White–yes, that Vanna White.

Once he acquired the Mark I GT, Jerry started collecting parts for his dream. When his plans to modify it became known, he risked the ire of some purists in the Cortina community. They thought the car too nice to modify, even after Jerry pointed out that Carroll Shelby had been known to modify a British car or two. He won back some friends when he shipped all the car’s running gear, at cost, to a Cortina enthusiast in the U.K.

Building a Sleeper

While the long-held “Cortina-Tiger” vision was Jerry’s–in high school, he had actually sketched a concept–he turned it over to Atlanta builder Johnny Riddling to bring to life. “He had the general outline of what he wanted and the drivetrain picked out,” Johnny explains, “but besides that, he let me sorta do it the way I wanted to, and I like to build a car that’s clean, nice and simple.”

Johnny admits this philosophy increased the challenge of stuffing a high-horsepower V8 and modern drivetrain into a tiny car. “Room,” he says, “was very hard to come by.” Johnny started by stripping the car to its bare-metal shell. He then began planning clever ways to rebuild the Cortina so it could handle serious horsepower while still appearing to be, well, a Cortina.

The build took just under a year, with much of the time devoted to designing, fitting, testing and refitting components into the GT’s close confines. But the meticulous planning, packaging and fabricating paid off. From bottom to top, this Cortina is operating-room sanitary, almost spartan.

Where’s All the Stuff?

Hidden, that’s where. The clean, uncluttered look was driven by Johnny’s “less is more” philosophy.

Under the bonnet, the stroked small-block Ford nestles like it was born there. It looks less squeezed for space than the original four-banger with side-mounted carbs.

The V8 sits as low and far back as possible for more balanced weight distribution. For sufficient ground clearance, this scheme required a shallow oil pan with added sumps on the sides.

Gone are the Cortina’s MacPherson struts, and the clean, fabricated inner fender aprons now hide an oil cooler on the driver’s side, electric water pump on the right, and associated wiring and connectors.

Front suspension is now a Mustang II A-arm setup fabricated to fit the Cortina’s narrow track, complete with rack-and-pinion steering and Wilwood brake system. The rear suspension faced the same track constraints, as the preferred 9-inch Ford axle was far too wide.

Suspension supplier Heidts came to the rescue, fabricating an independent setup that was shortened, braced and linked. Jaguar/Wilwood inboard brakes were also added. To accommodate the wide tires, Johnny cut in a hidden 2-inch section in the fender wells. “Mini-tubs,” he calls them.

To house the Tremec six-speed transmission and driveshaft, he modified the transmission tunnel, although surprisingly the Tremec’s shifter mated up to the original shifter’s location.

A stout six-point roll cage and subframe connectors add rigidity, connecting the front and rear under the car. The first attempt at a brake system was “too much like a race car,” as Johnny puts it, so he installed an effort-reducing remote vacuum booster and accumulator behind a panel in the car’s trunk. The side-exiting exhausts are tucked up under the floor pans to gain adequate road clearance.

Simple Appeals

So far, this Cortina has appeared at last year’s PRI Trade Show, Ray Evernham’s Indianapolis show, several cars-and-coffee gatherings, and a few shows around Atlanta. Everywhere it goes, it’s surrounded by admirers who pepper Jerry with questions, and he’s happy to comply.

When Hawk Performance displayed the car at their PRI stand, it drew so much attention that a Hawk staff member told Jerry, “We had to assign someone to deal with the Cortina questions so we could sell Hawk products.”

Admirers range from hotrodders to vintage car buffs, with the possible exception of those who believe Lotus Cortinas should remain completely stock. For most, however, this classic GT’s appeal goes beyond tiny car, big engine swap.

Subtle enhancements and attention to details–both old and new–give it a personality that’s equal parts hotrod, vintage rally car and sleeping beast. Sure, it’s way over the top, but it doesn’t brag about it.

Racing legend Jim Clark, who competed in the British Saloon Car Championship series early in his stellar career, became known for flinging his Cortina sideways around turns, defying gravity on two wheels. Imagine what he could have done with this one.

Behind the Wheel

So how fast is Jerry Peters’s V8 Cortina? He says its wicked fast.

Judging by our test drive over damp pavement on a chilly day, we say it’s scary fast. Others might call it bonkers: a 500-horsepower Cortina that rolls on an 88-inch wheelbase and weighs about 2200 pounds Maybe this thing is crazy but can we deny a man his dream?

“It’s just not hooking up this morning,” we’re told but even with wheelspin in each of the first three gears brutal acceleration pins us to the (leather-covered) seat the shorty exhaust system, bellows a visceral un-Ford-like blast, and the GT feels like it just might launch into orbit.

Car builder Johnny Riddling compares it to “an overgrown go kart. It actually handles well” he says “for a car with all that, horsepower on a narrow track and short wheelbase.” Overall the ride is stiff, maybe a bit jittery but not punishing The steering is slot-car responsive and the Cortina goes exactly, where it’s pointed-very quickly.

Owner Jerry Peters maintains that the Cortina drives and handles just fine as long as that power is judiciously applied He says. He’s pushed it to 120 mph before he ran out of room, and that was in fourth gear. (Given the GT’s tool-shed-like shape 120 is probably testing the aero limits.)

“I got a bit carried away with my original idea,” Jerry admits “It’s overpowered right now It’s like street-driving a race car About 100 or so less horsepower would make it more of a daily driver But it has fulfilled my lifelong dream of a badass Cortina It’s what Ford needed instead of the Lotus version.” Johnny agrees adding with satisfaction, “You can make it go sideways any time you want.” Can a gearhead ask for more?

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gjz30075 HalfDork
12/13/17 6:44 p.m.

I saw this car at the Mitty, and later at our British Car show in Norcross, GA and it's a killer!    Fantastic workmanship.

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